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EUROPE DIVIDED from PHALANX I'm a great admirer of David Thompson's designs, particularly his two solo games that I'v...


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post cold war


I'm a great admirer of David Thompson's designs, particularly his two solo games that I've already reviewed and, in the current situation, are getting even more play.  So, I was eagerly anticipating his next project. Knowing that this two-player game was scheduled to be released by Phalanx, a games company noted for the quality of its products was an added bonus.  Once again I have not been disappointed.
I was intrigued above all by the highly individualistic box art with its haunting, enigmatic face and its symbolic colouring of red and blue.  For me, there is something cold, emotionless and withdrawn about that face - a curious, but effective choice.  By serendipity, I chanced to play a friend's Kickstarter version the day before my review copy arrived!  I was even luckier in also being able to take my copy along to the last convention I was able to attend shortly before the current lockdown descended on us. 
The game spans the period from 1992 - 2019 [essentially the present day, as when conceived],  as such it may be considered Son of Twilight Struggle.  In that respect this is only because the first covered the Cold War, while this covers what has been termed the Post-Cold War.  The most obvious difference is that the latter game spanned the whole globe, whereas as the title proclaims this focuses more narrowly on the European continent alone.  The mounted map is less abstracted and I find it particularly appealing in its rich colours.

Mounted map

My copy is the retail version, while, as mentioned at the beginning, I have also played with the Kickstarter version.  There are very few differences, namely the Kickstarter has metal coins and wooden pieces for the armies and the many D6s, highly important to the game, have a symbol in place of the six pips for number 6.  
My personal preference is for the card board armies of my retail version for their clearly distinguished colouring and shape for each side.  Metal coins are frankly always attractive, but my stock from other games is such that I have no real need for more and I know that many of my friends and fellow gamers prefer a supply of poker chips that they introduce into any game that features currency.  As for the dice, I'm totally at home with the totally standard ones seen below in the retail version. 

There are a few more card board counters and then the other wholly attractive components are the various decks of cards, which I shall explore when looking at game play. 
The few cardboard components

Once more we are in situation of mutual rivalry for influence over the many countries of thee realigned Western and Eastern Europe.  This influence is symbolised by the use of the various coloured dice.  Red unsurprisingly are used by the Russian player, while his/her opponent fields a double set: Yellow representing the EU and Blue for NATO.  This and the fact that this player [whois named the Europe Player] starts with more cards and more money may give the initial impression of a one-sided contest.  Sufficient ink has been spilt already on the perennial game question of which side is the more likely to win.  My experience has been that all games so far have been close, with an almost equal balance of wins for both sides. 
The essence of this Euro-board wargame hybrid is a 20 turn game that takes in [1]the achieving of a victory points by accomplishing a series of short term goals and [2] two rounds of scoring each player's influence, one at the end of turn 10 and the other at the end of the game.  The central mechanic is the play of cards, that involves a limited form of deck-building.   That this takes place in rarely more than 2 hrs of nip and tuck play has certainly gained my vote. 

The game takes place over two 10-turn Periods: Period 1 includes events from 1998-2008 and Period 2 from 2009-2019. Each player has a separate Headline Deck and separate sets of Action and Advantage Decks.  

A sample of the Headline Cards
The Headline cards are played by each player from his limited hand and resolved on alternate turns.  Each depicts an Event from the period. It also carries a goal to be achieved by the turn on which the card will be resolved and awards points for their achievement.  This is the first stage of each turn and, after Turn 1, you will always have one pair of objectives laid out that are imminently going to be resolved at the end of the turn and one pair that will be resolved at the end of the next turn.
This is the first major aspect of the game's systems and is one that I relish.  This battling for short term objectives provides ongoing tension.  Sometimes the decisions are clear cut, as when preventing your opponent gaining 3 victory points [in game speak Prestige] is balanced against you gaining 1 VP.  But more often than not the choices are more subtle and balanced.  
I'd also add in that if, like me, you enjoy reading the cards, there's quite a bit of knowledge as well as geography to be picked up on route.  Though that might have more to do with my poor geographical knowledge!
How do you go about achieving these goals?  That takes us on to the main meat of the action, namely playing Action cards and sometime supplementing them by the play of an Advantage card.  Each player starts with their own separate deck of Action cards, the play of which leads to the build up of influence in various regions of the map.  The cards in your deck at start represent all the countries that you "control" and which can never fall under the influence of the other player, because your opponent can never place dice in them.

The Europe player starts with more in their hand than the Russian player.  This is a double-edged sword; on the one hand you will have more options initially, but the Russian player will be able to cycle through their deck faster.  This sets up a simple and effective dynamic.  Each card will contain some or all of a number of basic Actions to choose one from and execute.  All the thirteen cards the Europe Player starts contain purely a mixture of these basic  actions: Increase Influence, Gain Money, Build Army and Move Army.  Each card also has a background of one of the EU or NATO constituent countries.  
In contrast, Russia starts with only seven cards.  These too hold a range of basic Actions, but several also include a Special Action in a textual instruction and here is where the power often lies. It's also interesting that only two refer to geographic regions, while the others have titles such as News Media, Military Industrial Complex and Secret Services.

The bottom two cards illustrate part of 
the Russian at-start deck

Before I move on, I think it's important to say a word or two about Build Army and Move Army.  You can never have more than one Army in a region and the entry of an enemy Army into a region where you have an Army means mutual elimination.  This concept of "Army" needs some explanation and sadly this is the one thing missing from the excellent rule book.  There are no designer notes - a section in any game I look for eagerly to see the thinking behind concepts.  The decision was a deliberate one to keep the rules to a slim booklet.  However, there is a superb and very extensive Designer's Diary that I've included a link to at the end, if you share my interest in this aspect of a game.  It also includes a cracking AAR playthrough too.
So what are Armies and what is happening when they come into conflict?   Rarely if ever, is this guns and bullets directly flying between the two players historically - not that in the regions affected there weren't people dying by military actions sometimes.  They're a very wide range of effects from the overtly military as seen say in the Ukraine or other regions of the former Soviet Union to threats of military action, sabre rattling manoeuvres, promises of aid [military or political], treaties etc, etc.
To return to the Action cards, we come to the next feature that wins my praise hands down.  Each Player also has a set of twelve additional Action cards:  one for each of the twelve Regions that the Players are vying to have most influence in.  You gain your copy of the card when you have 5 or 6 pts of influence in a Region.  Consequently, both players may come to hold a copy of the same Region's card.   But each card contains different basic actions to choose from and a different Special Action too.  Not only does this reflect the different political and historical perspectives of each side, but also continue the elements of asymmetry in two sides' play.  Full marks for this design feature.

Just to stir the mix a little more, there is each Player's small deck of Advantage cards that as you can imagine throw in a few more distinctive traits of both sides.

Russia Advantage Deck
Europe Advantage Deck
The rule book provides understanding of this highly innovative design through a simple text supplemented at each step by a substantial parallel set of illustrations and exemplifications.  The next two photos show exactly what I mean.
Some of the Basic actions explained 
Information on Armies and Influence Dice
The one thing that you cannot do is play this game solo.  You might try to or at least practice a little solo to acquaint yourself with this new design.  But it really demands the two players for which it is purely designed.  At the moment, it's languishing under lockdown and social distancing, but like other games [as I've discovered] providing both of you have a copy FaceTime, Zoom or other such means of communication work fine or, of course, there's always tabletopia and perhaps somewhere down the line a vassel module.

This is another great design from David Thompson and another corner stone of my collection.  Enjoy.

Link to Designer's Diary